By Fr. Bernard Basset, Si.
WRITE this Roman letter on the afternoon of Thursday. October 11, having been in St. Peter's and on rny feet from 7.15 a.m. until just after 2 p.m. Lest later paragraphs should provide wrong impression, I must state at The start that I have never been so deeply moved in my fifty-three years of life. The opening ceremony of the Second Vatican Council was thrilling; the highlight for me, the singing of the Litany of Saints.
It was wonderful to hear the names of the apostles, martyrs, doctors ringing round the great basilica with the Church of the twentieth century invoking their aid. Three thousand bishops made she responses with a gusto which brought tears to my eyes. I was drawn to add one or two feeble "Pray for us-s" from my perch high above the nave.
The week passed for most Journalists and radio commentators in hunting for exact and lasting information. His Holiness said in his address that the Council was announced in January 1959 but, despite endless activity. nothing was quite ready or certain on October 10, 1962.
Thus there was a great reception for the Press in St. Peter's at 4 p.m. on the Monday but no-one had any exact information and we milled about, a thousand of us, in a delightful hut ineffectual way. There I met Miss Westcrhaven of the Cleveland (Ohio) "Plain Dealer," the representatives for the "Sunday Times" and "Observer" and Christopher Hollis acting for the "Spectator".
Christopher Hennessy of the "Universe" had flown in that rimming, remarkably fresh and extraordinarily kind. We learned very little but sat on the padded chairs of the Conciliar fathers. tried out the electric voting pencils with the flat stone eyes of Renaissance pontiffs looking down from their tombs with surprise.
The Radio commentators were 'done' much better but with no more information on the day before the Council commenced. We met in an hotel for refreshing drinks and gay conversation but few were sure what was to happen on the following day. I had three magnificent Vatican books, two in Latin one in French, setting out the order of the proceedings — one I unwillingly gave to Fr. Agnellus to help in his preparation for the B.B.C. commentary. None of them exactly agreed with each other or with the ceremony as it finally worked itself out. Again we all went to St. Peter's —this time in a bus — then we chased from one information office to another to get our passes for the basilica which were not ready this morning when the ceremony began. We ended up as you might guess in a restaurant, Fr. Agnellus, two stalwarts from Radio Eireann, Fr. Thomas O'Donnell and myself. The restaurant was packed with conciliar fathers, secretaries. press and radio officials who likewise had abandoned the hunt. This morning I walked to the basilica of St. Peter's, arriving at 7.15 a.m. Long lines of cars transported the Conciliar fathers, there would be an enormous car Carrying one solitary bishop and behind it the whole hierarchy of another country wedged into a shooting brake.
On these great occasions One sees nuns and priests in weird and wonderful apparel. some with monstrances and hearts woven in gold and silver on their breasts. Everyone was in the best of humour and there was an atmosphere of exhilaration which the long ceremony did not suppress.
I myself climbed up a spiral staircase inside one of the huge pillars to thc small balcony called after St. Longinus from which the spear, which he used on Calvary, is exposed for veneration on Good Friday.
Four booths had been erected for radio commentators and we had two Television screens. These were very necessary; while we looked direct onto the Papal throne, we could not see the altar on which Cardinal lisserant was to offer Mass. I could see Cardinal Bea, Cardinal Cushing but few of the bishops and abbots without hanging over the balcony at great risk.
In a space no larger than the Beauchamp Tower and rather more airless were wedged fifteen commentators and four electricians for six solid hours. not one minute of which was dull. I was in a team of three broadcasting to Africa. We swapped places before the microphone to comment in French, English and Swahili, each of us sweating profusely and weighed down with field glasses, cameras, notes.
At no moment were we certain what would happen next. In the crypt below the High Altar, the six commentators for TV were in a still more tense position for none of them knew what shot would appear next on the screen. Further they were standing touching each other for six hours, speaking in six different languages.
I watched His Holiness the Pope for six hours with increasing astonishment and admiration. He seemed inexhaustible and completely at his ease. When he prayed, he prayed with all his heart and without a trace of distraction and yet, at the next moment, he was laughing and gesticulating with great vivacity. When the Cardinals came to pay their homage, he chatted with each personally and once or twice called a cardinal back for a further few remarks. After six hours he looked as fresh as when he had first appeared.
After six hours and when the Pope had gone. I came down from my perch and made for lunch, At the door of St. Peter's with thousands of others, I was caught by the stream of bishops in mitres pouring out of the central doors. It was bewildering to see bishops at two a penny, their mitres at rakish angles and a look of liturgical satiation in their eyes. The very number of white mitres hurrying past made me dizzy; one felt as though Hollywood had been shooting Van Eyck's "Adoration of the Lamb" and the actors were now breakine off far lunch. One last backward glance into the basilica to see a magnificent guard in field marshal's uniform, chasing three nuns from the steps leading to the Papal throne. 0 Roma Felix! Amen.